Detestations and Not so Secret Lies. Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery

Eco IllustrationEco, Umberto. The Prague Cemetery. 2010. Trans. Richard Dixon. Harvill Secker 2011. New York: Mariner-Houghton, 2012.

Eco is reputed to have said that in this novel he aimed to create a “hateful’ character. He succeeds, so much so that it took me quite a time to get through this novel, his main character being so utterly loathsome. He hates Jews, although he has “never met one, except for the whore from the Turin ghetto . . . and the Austrian doctor [a doctor Froïde]” (6). He hates women, and he hates Jesuits and “their blood brothers the Masons” (13). A page later, he claims, “Jesuits are Masons dressed up as women” (14). Hate-full indeed. There is much to disgust in The Prague Cemetery: not least of which are gluttony, deceit, murder, and diabolism. Then there is the pathological anti-Semitism.

Eco IllustrationThe Prague Cemetery is a historical novel spanning most of the last fifty years of the nineteenth century, a time of ferment and, depending upon one’s point of view, revolution and renewal for most of continental Europe. France, for example, experiences the fall of the constitutional monarch Louis Philippe, the Second Empire, the Franco-Prussian War and the fall of the emperor, the short-lived Commune, and the beginning of the Third Republic. Italy as a unified state is created in 1861. By 1871, the north and south German federations have joined to become the German Empire dominated by Prussia. While the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary appears the most powerful force in Western Europe, it is already facing rising nationalism in its non-German speaking territories. Russia has liberated its serfs. Throughout Europe, radical liberal ideas are challenging autocracy, and socialism and communism are challenging bourgeois liberalism. I focus on ideas and ideologies here because in some ways The Prague Cemetery is a novel about the subtle power and evolution of ideas.

 Eco IllustrationFrom the Risorgimento to the Dreyfus Affair, the emergence of modern Europe is seen through the life of Simonini who became French because he “couldn’t bear being Italian” (11). Piedmontese by birth, trained in the law, a spy and forger for hire, plagiarist and plagiarised, misogynist and murderer, Simonini is indeed a despicable human being. As a participant in the novel, he is the only character entirely Eco’s creation. The others are historical personages whose histories can be checked.

Eco IllustrationEco plays with his readers. The book itself begins with a third person “Narrator” addressing a “Reader” (my emphasis). It ends with that Narrator outlining the relationship between “Chapter, Plot, and Story” and predicating that table with a reference to “the fatal imbalance between story and plot, or even worse [how interesting is the Narrator’s use of that word ‘worse’] . . . between fabula and sjužet” (440). Between these two chapters the rest of the novel depends on the memoirs of Simonini and on the apparent correspondence between Simonini and an Abbé Dalla Piccola. Different typefaces are used for the work of the Narrator and for each of the two memoirists. To bring us further into the world of the nineteenth century feuilletons, there are also antique black and white illustrations. Just in case we should think that these are created especially for the novel, their sources are acknowledged, and some of those not in the author’s collection are available on line.

Eco IllustrationThe whole question of a narrator’s reliability is at the foreground of this work, particularly since Simonini is a forger and a plagiarist. And while one can regard the novel as an autobiography of Simonini, it is also a biography of one of the best-known forgeries of all time, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Eco inserts his Simonini into the history The Protocols with the premise that it was Simonini, drawing on works by Barruel, Eugene Sue, and Maurice Joly, who began the document that became The Protocols; Simonini is then himself plagiarised by Hermann Goedsche. The Protocols eventually appeared in Russia under the auspices of the Tsarist secret service the Okhrana some time between 1897, the year Simonini begins his memoir, and 1903. They appeared in full as an appendix to Sergei Nilus’ The Great Within the Small in 1905. In the novel, one of the secret services for whom Simonini performs his work as forger and informant is the Okhrana.

Eco IllustrationThroughout The Prague Cemetery, Eco blurs the line between fact and fiction. The Narrator at times comments on what Simonini has written with such asides as “if it were not for the fact that these pages refer to events that actually took place, such alternations between [Simonini’s] amnesic euphoria and dysphoric recall might seem like a device of the Narrator” (170). Many of the events that Simonini witnesses did indeed take place. It is his role in them that is the fiction. Through his fiction, Eco throws a light into some of the shadowier corners of late nineteenth and early twentieth century intellectual and socio-political ideology, particularly the not so covert and growing undercurrent of systemic anti-Semitism.

Eco IllustrationAt times, he is even a little heavy handed, forcing us to see where the ideas that fermented in some of the salons of the belle époque ultimately led. In a scene where Simonini and Goedsche meet in a tavern in Munich, Goedsche, supposedly drawing on Luther, expounds on his desire to “liberate the German race from the Jewish snare.” He suggests “their young men [be] given axes and spades and their women flax and spindles . . . because arbeit macht frei, work sets you free” (118-19).

Eco IllustrationAt first, I felt that Eco’s concerns in the novel were not really with history but primarily with the way narratives work. However, The Prague Cemetery forces us to consider the whole power and impact of narratives in creating history, particularly if we take the view that we can build a history of the past only through the collation of documentation, through the written word. The whole debate over whether oral testimony is valid as historical record remains problematic for many scholars. If nothing else, The Prague Cemetery underscores that all that is written is not true. But we know that. And we have no problem with narrative fiction that is presented as untrue. It is when fiction is presented as truth that we face difficulties.

 Eco IllustrationEco raises the whole question about the uses of fiction, and the old, old question about the originality and morality of fiction. Some critics have found a dark humour in the work, seeing the presentation of Simonini as hyperbolic and melodramatic. I myself find the serious qualities of the work save it from being melodramatic and overly sensational.

Eco IllustrationI cannot help but appreciate the Narrator’s wit and the whole self-reflexive nature of the novel as it considers the nature of the novelistic enterprise and the relationship between “fact” and “fiction.” We are reminded that what we are reading is a construct, something that Narrator and Reader are building together. What we discover “is full of surprises, and might be worth using one day as the basis for a novel” (271). I am somewhat satisfied, too, by the suggestion of Simonini’s end. His diary is cut short, but the Reader is able to construct an entirely satisfactory and appropriate conclusion for herself.

Eco IllustrationBut when fiction is turned to propaganda, to building a destructive lie, what then is our responsibility? There are still those who accept The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as fact, and the Narrator reminds us that Simone Simonini “is still among us” (439).

Ultimately, I find myself ambivalent about The Prague Cemetery. And perhaps, given the various tensions in the work, this is as it should be, but I cannot help recalling Yeats’ “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity” (“The Second Coming” lines 7-8) and feeling I should be clearer in my position. Perhaps I’m dodging many issues when I fall back on the defence (?) that I’m writing a book review and am able to conclude as follows: not an easy novel to read, highly disturbing emotionally, The Prague Cemetery is an intellectual tour-de force that works on many levels.

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